Shabab-ologies: Researching Arab Mediterranean Youth

Through the interdisciplinary empiricism of the SAHWA project, we aspire to build a complex description and analysis of Arab Mediterranean youth, looking for the historical and social reasons for their situation, as well as remarking on the relational character of the juvenile worlds that are actively constructed by young people in the Arab Mediterranean countries.The aim is to understand these young people, not as a continuous and ahistorical social group, but as one that is dynamic and discontinuous, in which its members are a heterogeneous category that is diachronically and synchronically constructed by themselves. Over the coming months, we will discuss new directions for research, based on what we encounter in our navigation, our reflections and our workshop discussions.

“@TheBigPharaoh”, a well-known Twitter avatar started in 2012, writes on August 23, after the fall of Morsi: "Dear Western media, if I am an anti-Islamist Egyptian, wear polo-shirts and hear Bon Jovi, that does not mean that I am liberal". This remark shows that in the five countries where the research is being carried out–Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Lebanon (METAL)–globalisation has an effect on young people, but its significances are local.


Good examples may be Raï, Hip-Hop or heavy metal music. These mainstream styles in Western societies were controversial in Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Lebanon. In several countries, such as Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, some teenagers choose to wear black lipstick, T-shirts with skulls and crossbones and listen to delirious dance music and heavy metal. For the majority, these are clear signs of Satan worship, although these kids have never been involved in the orgies that the mass media habitually denounce. The context turns being a heavy metal fan into a ‘risk exercise’. Thus, one can only suspect that the behaviour of the heavy metal fans is something like ‘killing two birds with one stone’ in the societal conditions under which they live.

As the heavy metal fans and Big Pharaoh's tweet show us, this young generation construct their “way of life” in a context with two main dominant and, sometimes, contradictory models: one derived from the transformation promoted by modernisation, and a second model based on traditional values that are at the same time cultural and religious. As a consequence of globalisation, the young people of METAL countries are confronted by new circumstances for which there are no references in previous generations. Among these circumstances the principal concern for young populations is their precarious employment situation. The governments of the region distribute and delegate their responsibilities for the social management of this "risk" to citizens and small groups, such as, for young people, peers and family members. Accordingly, risk becomes the common experience of young people living the vast transformations that globalization provokes.

These conditions of risk support the establishment of relationships between young people in distant parts of the world that are affected by the global cultural flow, which upsets the morphology and dynamics of local processes. In fact, although mass communication and transnational marketing have contributed enthusiastically to the image of a global youth culture, use jeans, sneakers and backpacks are little more than superficial similarities among youth of different contexts. As Big Pharaoh noted, the METAL youths may have a look that is similar to European young people, but it may be nothing more than their appearance, as their frames of reference are very different.

METAL youths advocate, practice and re-create their traditions in spite of their appearance. While they communicate this discourse, they also actively follow the tendencies of so-called global culture. METAL youths establish relationships in malls, eat western-style fast food, and use mobile phones and portable music players. However, they identify themselves as Arabs, Moroccans, Egyptians, Tunisians, Algerians or Lebanese. They are living in ambiguity, in the same way that European youths criticize US hegemony while consuming North American cultural goods and products. But is this representation of what being young signifies in METAL countries particular to them? Or, alternatively, do they respond to the need to construct a (non-existent) Arab youth culture as the mirror image of Western youth cultures?

Youth culture does not only consist of spectacular cultural forms on the part of white teenagers in Western cities. Youth culture is what concerns young people wherever they live–be it a rural area, city or slum–and produces more agency than most of the studies show. This production occurs in school, in work places, in the street, when playing, with friends, with parents, with brothers and bosses, with personal elements and transnational influences, where class, gender and religious identities overlap, using all this cultural diversity at the same time as being oriented by different circumstances.

The exclamation of Big Pharaoh in one hundred and forty characters at the beginning of this text exhorts us, as social scientists, to attempt to approach the youth realities of the Arab Mediterranean countries without getting caught up in researching common places built for, and appropriate to, other young social and cultural spaces. The message is clear: the “Arab Mediterranean youth” is capable of choosing to be an individual in their public and private life. A new consciousness that is appearing in Arab countries at the beginning of the 21st century has something to do with new interpretations of the pillars of the Arab-majority societies by new actors, young people who construct new discourses through embodied experiences in order to understand the world of social, political and economic relations.

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